Classic Song Analysis: “God Only Knows” (Wilson/Asher)

A gorgeous tune, and groundbreaking in its day, “God Only Knows” still has lots for today’s songwriters to learn.

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Beach Boys: Pet Sounds: God Only Knows“God Only Knows”, from the Beach Boys’ seminal album Pet Sounds (1966), usually makes it to any list of “world’s greatest songs”, including 25th on the Rolling Stone’s “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” When Pet Sounds was initially released in 1966, people didn’t quite get it. It reached 10th position on the Billboard 200, but failed to achieve gold status. But it often takes listeners time to understand greatness in the arts, and Pet Sounds now rates at or near the top of any “all-time-best” chart. “God Only Knows” is quite simply gorgeous, transparent, and for its day, shockingly honest and intimate.

It’s worth reading a history of the writing and production of the tune. The track notes for “God Only Knows” offer some interesting tidbits, including anxiety over the decision to include the word “God” in the title. Times have changed, have they not?

There’s so much to analyze with this tune, so let’s start with a map of the formal design:

"God Only Knows" - Formal Design

The “chorus” is really a simple 1-line refrain. I divided the bridge into 2 sections mainly because of the change in beat subdivision which is so apparent: a 2-part subdivision for Part 1, and back to the song’s predominant 3-part subdivision in Part 2.

Lyrics and Harmony

The verse uses a lot of inverted chords: chords in which the bass is not playing the chord root. It’s a stroke of genius, particularly when you consider the lyric:

D/A     Bm
I may not always love you
F#m                   F#m/A
But long as there are stars above you
E/B       Cdim
You never need to doubt it
E/B              A#ø
I'll make you so sure about it

The first chord (D/A) is a non-diatonic chord, as if the singer is pulling the listener aside. Every time the tonic chord (E) occurs, it’s in its most “unstable” inversion, with the 5th in the bass. The entire verse progression sounds restless, insecure, and looking for a direction – the perfect model of a “fragile” progression. When you couple it with the lyric, you sense that the singer is not at ease at all with his relationship, and the chords emphasize this sense of insecurity. It’s such a great coupling, because the lyric on its own doesn’t necessarily convey that tentative quality. But the wandering nature of the progression adds an important subtext. You can almost picture the singer pacing back and forth nervously, but trying to sound confident and secure.

With the chorus (refrain), it’s as if the singer is telling us the one thing he knows for sure:

A        E/G#              F#m         E
God only knows what I'd be without you.

With that line the chord progression finally displays confidence, moving to a clear harmonic goal (A  E/G#  F#m7  E). It’s a fantastic example of how lyrical meaning can be supported and enhanced by a chord progression.

The bridge, particularly Part 1, returns to fragile progressions (A/E G/D  A/E  G/D) that gain direction once more in Part 2, but now using A as a new tonic. The bass line of Part 2 is constructed in such a way to move in and around the note E (dominant of A), and this focusing on the dominant builds harmonic energy:

G/D  Em6  Bm/F#  E7/D

A/E  Fdim  A/E  D#ø

The chorus fragment is then sung, but in A major instead of the original key of E. The descending bass line is still present, and that line allows for a smooth transition back to E major for the start of the final verse.

Melody

We’ve seen how the supporting harmonies of the verse create and enhance a subtext of unease in the lyric. The phrasing of the melody accomplishes the same thing. For a ballad, the melody is surprisingly fragmented, comprised of 4 short phrases, relatively similar in construction, separated by relatively lengthy rests:

Verse Melody - "God Only Knows"

The short phrases contribute to the anxious subtext of the verse lyric. You also get a sense of increasing melodic energy that comes by way of the gradually ascending line. That’s what verses do, because the chorus needs that build-up to properly emote. However, in this case, the chorus melody descends by more than an octave, allowing energy to dissipate. It has the effect of making the chorus sound almost like a sigh:

Chorus melody "God Only Knows"The one other aspect of “God Only Knows” to note is the sparse approach to instrumentation. The instrumental group was large by 60s pop performance standards, including standard guitar, bass and drums, but also including several orchestral instruments – orchestral strings, french horn, percussion, piano and harpsichord. The temptation, especially with this type of ballad, is to layer sounds deeply, and make maximum use of the orchestra. In fact, keeping the instrumentation and backing vocals restrained and on a more intimate level was a decision that Brian Wilson had to eventually choose.

This limited approach did wonders for the final result. With songs like “God Only Knows” that are warm and tender, the best technique is usually to stay out of the way and let the lyric do its job. Brian Wilson’s instruction to his brother Carl, who sang lead vocal, was: “Don’t do anything with it. Just sing it real straight. No effort. Take in a breath. Let it go real easy.”

So what are the lessons for songwriters from “God Only Knows”?

  1. Support lyrical meaning with chord choice. For lyrics that are strong and straightforward, opt for strong progressions that show a clear harmonic goal. For lyrics that express anxiety, worry or indecision, support the text with more fragile chord choices.
  2. Creating melodies out of shorter phrases can add a sense of unease that can be ideal if you’re creating that kind of lyric.
  3. Melodies that move upward tend to gain energy, and melodies that descend will allow energy to dissipate.
  4. The bridge is a great place to allow chord progressions to pull away from the home key. The bridge tends to be the place where tonal complexity works the best. Toward the end of the bridge you’ll need to find a smooth transition back to the home key.
  5. Think carefully about instrumentation. Just because you have access to a large instrumental group doesn’t mean you should be using them all the time. You can impair the effectiveness of your instrumentation by allowing them to play all the time. If in doubt as to how to use non-standard instruments in a pop song performance, simply visit the music faculty of a nearby university, and get help from a senior music student. Orchestral instruments, if well-used, can add an amazing sense of class and sophistication to a performance.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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6 Comments

  1. More like this, please. Really insightful.

    Reply
  2. ditto tropicaltheartist.
    Theory’s really dry when it isn’t tied to something meaningful and heartfelt. Thanks for your post.

    Reply
  3. Thank you so much…this song has haunted me for most of my life. It’s fascinating to see how it is constructed.

    Reply
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